Pepperdine students provide advocacy services to parents in need with the Justice Bus project.
EVERY YEAR IN ALMOST EVERY SCHOOL ACROSS THE COUNTRY, capable, smart children fall behind their peers. The reasons are varied; unacknowledged learning disabilities, social and/or economic burdens, lack of personal attention. But the outcome is usually the same—children aren’t able to succeed to the best of their ability. Many are held back a year or put in remedial classes, two stigmas that will follow them throughout their entire school career.
Meanwhile parents feel that they have little say in the school’s decision. Many parents—particularly lower-income parents in areas with limited access to legal services—aren’t even aware that they have legal rights regarding the choices made by their child’s school about said child’s education.
“Dealing with a school is so one-sided,” notes Rachael Nelson, a third-year Pepperdine School of Law student. “Most parents are really passionate and want to do the best they can for their kids but they don’t know the law or how to go about it, and they can’t afford attorneys. Schools have attorneys.”
Enter a group of nine Pepperdine students, including Nelson, and the advocacy nonprofit One Justice. The California-based organization hosts one-day clinics in underserved neighborhoods, providing temporary access to pro bono attorneys for issues of health, violence, homelessness, hunger, and education. In 2007 the Justice Bus Project was established so that law students could assist the clinic attorneys.
The School of Law partnered with the Justice Bus Project for the first time last November, when the first Pepperdine group assisted an attorney from Mental Health Advocacy Services (MHAS) in an education advocacy clinic set up for a day in a community center in the small town of Lancaster, California, about an hour north of Los Angeles.
“One of our goals [in partnering with law schools] is to expose law students to the needs in isolated, rural communities, and to let them know there’s a need for services out there,” says Cynthia Luna, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow for One Justice and coordinator of the partnership. “It was moving to witness the students’ realizations about how much they could empower parents in one afternoon by providing tools for parents to advocate for their own children.”
The group acted as the first point people, gathering information from parents and guardians about their cases and advising the MHAS attorney about the individual situations, while a couple of the students were bilingual and able to serve as translators. In total, they were able to help serve more than 20 clients.
Nelson recalls one older woman, who was the legal guardian to her two grandchildren. She walked into the clinic with nothing but a fierce determination to help her grandchildren succeed in school. She had no paperwork with her, and no knowledge of what rights she had, as legal guardian, to demand that the school provide extra attention for her two disabled charges.
“She was raising two children with two different disabilities. She was the nicest woman, but with no education and a minor disability of her own, she had no idea what to do,” remembers Nelson, who has taken the special education law course at the School of Law and volunteered with special needs children in the past. “She would show up and bake cookies at the school to get people to like her and get better programs for her kids, but she didn’t know anything else to do. What she really needed was help getting more programs for her kids who were being overlooked.”
The needs of all the parents and guardians that visited the clinic that day varied but, like the grandmother’s difficult situation, what they all had in common was children who felt abandoned by a system that is supposed to support their education—not hinder it.
“The questions that needed answering were questions that to any parent would seem daunting when they don’t know the laws,” agrees third-year student Brian Sanchez, president of the sponsoring student group, the Pepperdine Special Education Advocacy Law Society. “A lot of the time what a parent wants is just a simple answer to a question that brings some peace of mind.”
In the case of the grandmother, the clinic was able to provide the specific language she would need to talk through her grandchildren’s educational issues with the school, and helped her to fill out forms that would secure thorough and rigorously evaluated Independent Education Plans (IEP) for her children.
“She needed to request that the school give more specific evaluations in the IEP than just ‘the child is learning to read,’ or ‘the child is improving,” Nelson says. “She needed to know what books they were reading, and how long they take to read. If that is recorded, then there is specific progress, or lack thereof, that can be charted. The school can say the child is improving for the rest of their school lives, but without hard facts there’s nothing to support it. Once they start getting really specific in the IEP, the grandmother will be able to go back if there’s no improvement, and the school will have to implement new programs.”
The Special Education Advocacy Law Society decided to join forces with the Justice Bus Project after learning through One Justice about the needs in underserved communities that are close to Pepperdine, yet a world apart from Malibu.
“These parents need clinics like this advocating for their kids,” says coordinator Carlton Oliver, director of student life and student outreach at the School of Law. He adds that a lot of law students didn’t even know that parents faced such pressure from schools to comply with substandard plans for their child’s education.
“The partnership generated a lot of buzz,” confirms Sanchez. “It provides the chance to practice your knowledge of the law but with the immediate sense of knowing that you’re doing something positive. After all, the end goal is to ensure that children are afforded a proper education.”
There’s a certain kind of symmetry at work, that’s not lost on Oliver and Sanchez, when the School of Law provides access for students to act as educational advocates through opportunities like the One Justice’s Justice Bus Project—thereby advocating for Pepperdine students’ educational growth and enrichment.
“It was a great experience for our students,” says Oliver. “They got to help a practicing attorney and learn about the special education laws applicable in California. Listening to parents, they had to ‘issue-spot’ and identify what they needed to present to the attorney—sharpening their understanding of the issues for people in underserved communities where they may end up practicing one day. And it sharpened their understanding of the specific laws that can actually help people.”
Nelson confirms that having taken the special education course offered at the School of Law she was familiar with the steps parents need to take to advocate for their children’s education, but this was her first chance to put that knowledge into practice. “I haven’t been a part of any clinics offered at Pepperdine before because of my work schedule, so it was incredible to be able to help clients individually this time. This is a great, great program—for the clients and for us as students.”
Sanchez, who plans to work in special education practice when he graduates, sees the partnership with One Justice growing with future Justice Bus Project trips in the pipeline. The opportunity to engage more students with this issue is too great, he says, and employers are not as likely to advocate for their employees’ enrichment with the chance to serve as much as Pepperdine will.
“It’s really important to have these opportunities as much as possible in law school—once you start working professionally it’s really hard to get away from the actual work. And I know the students on this trip really appreciated being able to provide help to people who couldn’t usually afford it.”